Experience design is not a profession (yet)

Zoe Rose
Zoe Rose
Apr 6, 2018 · 10 min read

Hi! My name is Zoe, and I’m a mechanic.

I’m a nutritionist, too. And a counsellor, a mediator, a hypnotist, and a builder.

I can be all of these things because, in my region – Victoria, Australia – these are all unprotected terms. You can be any of these things with no qualifications, even if you have no skills, training, or experience in them at all.

I am also a UX designer.

I never set out to be a designer. I wanted to be an English lit teacher. But the dice of my life turned out to be 20 sided, and in the late 2000s I found myself working for a publishing company in the UK. My product – an online delivery service for educational content – wasn’t working properly. I started drawing pictures of what the service would do if it did work, annotated with conditions, sequences, flows.

The woman leading the product said to me, ‘you should be proud. These are world-class wireframes.’

I’d never heard the word ‘wireframes’ before.

We explore the Airbnb with an increasing sense of dread.

A skim of the property – which looked so appealing, so quirky, so very instagrammable on the app, with its whimsically arranged leather-bound books and porcelain curios on the mantelpieces and retro-chic 1950s cheesecake magazines in chromatically appropriate wicker baskets by the tv – reveals some brutal truths.

There are no towel hooks in the bathroom. There is no wardrobe in one of the bedrooms. No door to the bathroom, which includes the toilet. No dishwasher, no bedside lights, no spare blankets.

In the combination kitchen, dining area, and lounge, there are only two sources of light – both of them exposed filament bulbs of the kind favoured in cafes, hung in pendant lights, casting a light so poor it would be dangerous to cut vegetables by it. We have to use the torches in our phones to find our books in our luggage, but it’s so dark we can’t read them.

The walls are painted the most beautiful shade of navy blue I have ever seen. They make the dimness much, much worse.

On her Airbnb bio, our host proclaims herself to be ‘a designer’.

‘See?!?’ I hiss at my poor, partially visible husband. ‘This. THIS is why we need design accreditation.’

At some point, people in my workplace started referring to me as a designer. Whenever this happened, I would laugh it off. My reasoning was simple:

  • I was really bad at fashion
  • I did not wear glasses with square black frames

(As a side note, my inability to dress myself well was a long-standing, non-trivial problem. At about the time people started calling me a designer, I found a cheap black T-shirt at H&M that was well cut, well stitched, and fit me. I bought six and rotated four with two in reserve, and so solved my clothes problem – I just wore the same tshirt every day and switched from work trousers during the week to jeans at the weekend. Not once did it occur to me that I had used design skills to solve my problem, or that I was now dressing like a stereotypical designer.)

(I still have one of the t-shirts.)

Do I think that people were right to call me a designer then? No. I don’t think I was one. I was using design skills, I was creating designed artifacts, I was doing some very solid work in IA and search interactions, but I was in an environment where the only designers were graphic designers.

The woman who told me my wireframes were world-class? It was a lovely compliment, but I don’t think she was right. She hadn’t seen enough wireframes to know.

The people who called me designer at the start of my career – well-meaning publishing types, struggling with the engulfing rise of the digital world – didn’t have a sufficiently strong knowledge base to make the assessment. With the best will in the world, they didn’t know enough to know whether I was a designer or not.

Who, then?

Who could have told me?

If the management structures of my organisation were insufficient, who could tell me if what I had learned was enough for me to be ‘a designer’? Who could have told me what my big weakness was (it was user research, but I didn’t know that at the time) and what I needed to do to be passable at it?

An accreditation body could have told me. But there wasn’t one, so I had to work it out for myself.

I read a lot of articles on ‘a list apart’. I tried a lot of things. I spent a monumental amount of time on twitter (and I owe a lifelong debt to those infinitely generous designers and technologists who populated that once-great service in those days).

But I didn’t think of myself as learning to be a designer. I was still stuck on the square glasses thing.

My eyesight, incidentally, was fine.

I don’t, by the way, I think this issue of work environment is a trivial problem. If we restrict the intake of potential UXers to organisations where design is already recognised and that have pre-established design departments, then we have restricted the pipeline to existing workers at organisations that only hire people for design roles who are already designers.

This represents an absurdly small number of people at a precipitously small number of very large organisations. More specifically, it cuts off our intake. The vast majority of people who are doing design work – often very good design work – are doing so invisibily. They work in or for organisations that do not understand what they do, do not correctly recognise (or remunerate) what they do, and do not support them in doing what they do. A design-advanced organisation that hires people in any kind of design role beyond messing around with photoshop is already ahead of the curve – sure we complain about them, but at least we can see them.

The target for recognising and developing new designers can only be places where design is unrecognised and underdeveloped.

What is a ‘profession’, anyway?

It sounds like a question with a long, complex, boring answer, and it is. Here’s one definition:

A profession is a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards.

This group positions itself as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and is recognised by the public as such.

That is one definition, there are others. But the thing that emerges again and again is ethics.

Why ethics?

Because people who claim to have a profession know things that other people do not know. They can do things that other people cannot do.

And because of this, they are in a unique position to do wrong.

To be a professional is to have constraints that other people don’t. There are things that accountants are not allowed to do, things that lawyers and pharmacists must not do, that just don’t apply to non-accountants, non-lawyers, non-pharmacists.

These codes of ethics aren’t general, they’re codified: they are written and maintained by organisations that the accountants, lawyers, pharmacists must be members of.

They are also enforceable. If you break the code, you can be stripped of your status as a professional.

If a UX designer is incompetent, or uses design to deceive users, the worst that can happen to them is that they get fired – there is nothing to stop them from putting ‘UX’ or ‘IxD’ or ‘service design’ on their next CV. Reputation is our only form of regulation, and as our numbers increase, reputation becomes less and less effective in communicating competence.

If it sounds like I am saying that design is not a profession, then yes – that is exactly what I am saying. We are not.

Without a code of ethics and a body to enforce it, we’re barely even a trade. Maybe less – most trades have accreditation or at least licensing.

Right now, we’re less accountable than hairdressers.

The woman from the agency is introduced to us as their interaction designer.

‘We’ll use a breadcrumb trail’, she says. ‘It looks very clean.’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘But this is a search interface based on text strings and filters. Bread crumb trails represent hierarchies, and this is a non-hierarchical service. It is impossible to represent our content discovery mechanism using a breadcrumb trail.’

‘It looks very clean,’ says the interaction designer.

‘She’s got a good point’, said the woman in charge of the project. ‘It does look very clean.’

Later, I look up the interaction designer on LinkedIn. She has only had one design job before this, in educational publishing.

She did book covers. But of course.

Here’s a hard truth: If we do professionalise, it will kind of suck. It will be a hassle. It will involve memberships and faffing about and petty bureaucracy and disagreements and, in the case of people like that interaction designer, potentially some pretty harsh and unwelcome discoveries about our true competencies. Right now, we can ricochet around doing pretty much as we please, and that’s a hell of a lot of fun.

If we professionalise, it will be better for our discipline, better for our clients and employers, unequivocally better for our users, but for us as individuals, it will pretty much suck.

Most of us learned our skills through practice: we learned how to design by designing, how to research by doing research. Many of us are – rightly – suspicious of design qualifications from higher education institutions (what on Earth are the design courses doing in the art departments anyhow?)

Mandating a course of study for those of us who are already established in our careers is, I think, self-evidently unnecessary and unimplementable. But that does not mean that there is no role for qualifications for us.

(We are not, by the way, the first area of technology that has encountered this problem. Our friends the developers are almost universally self-taught, have a profound and justified distrust of university qualifications, and conduct most of their professional development through informal learning created in and distributed via social networks. As far as I know, they do not have an overarching professional body. We can learn a lot from them, but unfortunately, I don’t think they can show us what to do next.)

Fortunately for us, some quite viable solutions are emerging. One of these is “recognition of prior learning”.

Consider the example of a paralegal. Over the course of, say, 10 years, a paralegal might gain almost all of the skills necessary to be a lawyer. For this person, embarking on a complete law degree would be time-consuming, expensive, and largely pointless – because they already know most of the content. But without a degree, they are barred from the profession.

With recognition of prior learning, this person can undergo assessments that provide a decent picture of what they do and do not already know, and then, the person will only have to do the units where they are lacking in knowledge. The end result: They get the qualification they need to progress their career in far less time, but with the guarantee that they meet all the required professional standards.

There are professions, like law, that are already doing this. We could do it too.

Thinking back to my younger self, the impact that a list of competencies would have had on my career can hardly be overestimated. I would have known that I had a gap in usability research so much earlier, been able to fill it so much earlier. I would have been less baffled when people started calling me a designer. And I wouldn’t have been held hostage by the image of those ridiculous square frame glasses.

The counter argument to there being a core set of design competencies that I hear most often has to do with the nature of competencies: who is to say, the argument goes, what the definitive list of core competencies for a designer really are? We are none of us unicorns, the everyone has strengths and weaknesses – we are all t-shaped, we are all broken combs. My response is: if we genuinely do not have a set of core competencies are we even a discipline? I think we are. You probably do too. The core competencies are all known, they’re just not codified.

(As an aside, if you are at all interested in credentials and accreditation (I am, I’m a massive accreditation standards nerd, I wrote an ontology of qualifications for the BBC just to start with, and I have tried to pare back my theoretical explanations *to the bone* for this post, sorry if they’re still long) do pay attention to shifts in higher education but ignore prestigious universities. The core product that prestigious universities sell is macrocredentials (degrees) where the value of the product is communicated by the brand name it is associated with – the university. They have no incentive to interrupt their own business model. Second tier universities and vocational organisations, on the other hand, operate in an overcrowded market where their brand has limited value – they have everything to gain by opening up new pathways to credentials and new forms of accreditation. For my money, Deakin University in Melbourne is doing some of the best work in the world in this space, including a cracking ‘recognition of prior learning’ process.)

(Besides, when it comes to prestige it doesn’t really make sense to judge the quality of a worker on the basis of which university they graduated from (or if – SHOCK – they went to uni at all). After all, judging a person on the basis of which university they chose to apply to and were accepted to BEFORE they undertook any study or actually learned anything makes about as much sense as assessing someone’s competence on the basis of what company they were working for when they discovered an aptitude for a new area of expertise for the first time. Like we do in design.)

So that’s my case: I think we should professionalise. This is, in many ways, a well-worn path: the requirements and infrastructure of professionalisation are well established.

If we’re going to professionalise, there are some things we need to do.

  • We need a codified set of core competencies.
  • We need a codified set of ethics.
  • We need accreditation.
  • We need an industry body to administer the accreditation.
  • We need the ability to kick designers who do harm – through incompetence or malice – out.

And if we genuinely, honestly, can’t do these things, these fundamental things that every profession before us has done, maybe experience design is not a profession at all.

    Zoe Rose

    Written by

    Zoe Rose

    IA, UX, education. Five-year-old wrangler. British/Australian. General enthusiast.

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